Labor Day

What better way to honor and celebrate the accomplishments of workers than with a day off? As we here in the Local History and Genealogy division gear up for the long holiday weekend, I find myself pausing to reflect on Rochester’s past (as Deputy City Historian, I do this from time to time) and the history of our city’s labor force.

Thanks to the waterpower of the Genesee falls and the easy access to transportation afforded by the Erie Canal, Rochester industry (and indeed the city as a whole) grew by leaps and bounds in the second quarter of the 19th century. Not only was this early boomtown growing, grinding, and shipping enough grain to distinguish itself as the world’s leading Flour City, a considerable number of ancillary industries grew up around the flour trade, such as barrel making, shipbuilding, blacksmithing, and machine making. Clothing manufacturing was another emergent enterprise, with small shops giving way to more centralized factories employing increasingly more workers.

By the 1840s, a sizable percentage of Rochesterians made their living as laborers. Their growing concerns about wages, hours, and working conditions led to the formation of several protective trade unions in the 1850s. In 1863, representatives from five of these unions got together to form the Workingmen’s Assembly of Rochester. This was America’s first central-trades council.

The Assembly held meetings to organize workers statewide and nationally. It supported local strikes and boycotts, and petitioned for higher wages and shorter workdays, to varying degrees of success. Socially, the Assembly held annual Fourth of July picnics, with several thousand in attendance. The workers’ massive march to the picnic on July 4, 1870, can be considered the city’s first labor parade.

Letter Carriers assemble

Members of the National Association of Letter Carriers gather in Washington Square Park preparing to march in the Labor Day parade, September 1911. From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History Division.

More than frivolous recreation, labor parades were a way for workers to demonstrate strength in both size (as in their numbers, although I’m sure many laborers were also quite brawny) and solidarity. The Knights of Labor organized a particularly impressive parade in Rochester on June 26, 1882. It included over 6,000 workers from over thirty local unions.

rpl

Crowds gather to watch the long lines of workers march down Main Street in the 1910 Labor Day Parade. From the collection of the Rochester Public Library Local History Division.

That same year (1882) in New York City, the Central Labor Union hosted the first official Labor Day celebration. The holiday is truly a grassroots creation, with labor groups in cities around the country (like Rochester!) following the CLU’s lead, recognizing the first Monday in September as a day to honor America’s workforce.

The first state bill for a Labor Day holiday was introduced in New York, but Oregon beat us to the punch, becoming the first state to officially sanction the holiday on February 21, 1887. Soon afterwards, New York, Colorado, Massachusetts, and New Jersey followed suit. In 1894, in the wake of the tragically violent Pullman Strike, Congress declared Labor Day to be an official national holiday. Thirty-one states were already recognizing it at that point.

This year Rochesterians will kick off their Labor Day celebrations with the customary parade through downtown. According to RochesterLabor.org, this year’s theme is “Making NY Work” and the emphasis is on bringing high-paying jobs into the state. The parade begins tonight at 6:30 at East Avenue and Alexander Street; it will proceed down East to Main and on westward to Plymouth. My preferred vantage point will be the Main Street Bridge, where I will enjoy seeing the EXTERIOR of my office, the stately Rundel Memorial Library Building, all lit up in the background. Hope you can make it!

~ Michelle Finn, Deputy City Historian

Sources:

Blake McKelvey, “Organized Labor in Rochester before 1914,” Rochester History 25, no. 1.

Rochesterlabor.org

www.dol.gov/laborday/history.htm

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